Back to School: Or the "equivalent" of school?

28 August  2012
Dear Scott Walker

As I ready my kids to go back to school, now in the second year of having to deal with the cuts that have weeded out some of their finest teachers and laid bare budgets that already had no wiggle room (forcing many schools to cut essential programming, force out teachers, and increase class size), I am disturbed by the timing of recent announcements and the increase in disproportionate funding to charter and private schools at the expense of the vast majority of our children. 

Just yesterday, Wisconsin Superintendent Tony Evers announced $16.1 million in federal grants will be poured into the charter programs that serve a tiny fraction of our students. More disproportionate investment in education inequity: $16.1 million in federal grants to 84 schools. Whose children are left behind? Almost all of them. Only 40,329 of the 870,000+ Wisconsin kids in public schools attend charters. 

To put this in perspective: in the 2011-13 budget, DPI requested $2,280,500 to fund SAGE schools that would protect then-current funding levels at $2,000 per student for about 11,500 low-income Wisconsin kids. You denied this request (knowing it could cost some schools their SAGE standing at the federal level) and added additional cuts to SAGE and HeadStart programming. In the same budget, you approved an increase of $7,086,200 GPR in FY12 and $15,460,800 GPR in FY13 for charter school funding based on 21,600 pupils in FY12 and 22,900 in FY13 and a per pupil payment of $6,442 per FTE in both FY12 and FY13. This disproportionate investment in the few at the expense of the many is jaw-dropping, especially at a time when "the many" are expected to pull their belts even tighter as they prepare to deal with the second - and worse - year of your unprecedented cuts to public education.

As a parent who strongly believes in the need to invest evenly in all of our students, and especially to ensure that inequities in the system that disadvantage low-income students are addressed honestly and productively, I am terrified by the dangerous pattern that you have very clearly estabilished here, and have publicly promised (on many occasions, and despite warnings from countless education professionals) to see through to the end: Disinvest in our most vulnerable kids. Overinvest in a handful, and split that investment pretty much equally between low-income, highly segregated schools and private ones. Lower standards for qualifications and assessments (not just at the charter schools but across the board).   

In a poll that came out just last week (in which Americans overwhelmingly agreed Obama is better than Romney for public education), 57% of people said they think teachers should have more rigorous training.  

Is the ultimate goal to make this untrue?
So I was equally disturbed to read your praise for a new Teacher "Equivalency" Certification  process by which non-educators can get into our classrooms bypassing the traditional certification route by proving they have the "equivalent" experience in the private sector or in preschool classrooms. 

The new "Teacher Equivalency Certification"  was announced by Dr. Evers just this week: a process that would allow someone without a degree in teaching to get a public school teaching license if he or she has a bachelor's degree; has been a private school teacher; has similar out-of-state certification; or has "at least 3 years of teaching" at the post-secondary, preschool, or industry level.  You praised this move, saying "We must also help districts find qualified men and women with workplace experience who are interested in sharing their knowledge with the next generation, especially in high need areas like science and math."  I find this position extremely insulting to educators, who have been specifically and carefully trained in a whole range of skill areas that have nothing to do with their area of expertise.  Being an industry expert or having experience with a "subject" does NOT prepare one or qualify one to teach that subject.  How is a chemist prepared to deal with special needs students? How does a computer programmer possess the skills and training needed to deal legally and effectively with chronic acting-out in the classroom?  How has an accountant's experiences in a cubicle prepared her for the demands of ensuring common core standards are met while reaching out to students of widely differing needs and abilities?  Imagine if the roles were reversed and the teacher demanded the private sector job - at the same rate of pay.  It just defies reason, and it's a slap in the face to dedicated educators.

This move has been promoted by Dr. Evers as a way of creating "career opportunities" for non-teachers to become teachers.  How insulting.  While I'm sure the private sector can produce some good teachers (and a degree in education doesn't automatically translate into classroom success, either), the underlying assumption here is simply more of the same anti-educator rhetoric we've heard since you took office: anyone can teach, "real" teachers are just lazy and unqualified, teachers don't deserve what the earn, teaching is easy, and on and on and on.  It also makes me wonder what this will mean to compensation: how much will these "equivalent teachers" earn? Is this a ruse to lower the wages for educators? Or a plan to turn industries into "temp services" that will farm out "teachers" (and take a cut of their wages) to public schools?  My mind races to imagine how the education-privatizers might capitalize on a move like this, especially when your own "Job Czar" is trying to actually make it more expensive for people who might really want to invest in a degree in education to do so and your administration continues to push a discredited rumor that our workforce is under-skilled and unprepared for employers - a move which allows you to put the reins of education directly in the hands of potential employers.

The path to a career in teaching begins with respecting that teaching is a profession - not a "job" that anyone can just step into.  I am extremely skeptical of the token "assessment" requirements for anyone who has  "not completed a Wisconsin recognized and approved educator preparation program."  What message does this send about the value of those programs? What message does this send about the value of teaching, when it is parsed down to its simplest form of "sharing knowledge."

As a parent who volunteers regularly in the schools and someone who works professionally with educators every day, I know that there is no testable "equivalent" of a degree in education.  There is no "equivalent" to taking the time to learn about the rigors and restraints of standardized testing, the complexities of assessment, the pedagogies that work (and don't) for the range of learners in our classrooms.  And, ultimately, I don't want my kids taught by the "equivalent" of teachers. I want them taught by people who dedicated their lives to the profession, and who give that profession the respect it requires by receiving the proper training and education.  

Why does the minimum standard for what we expect from our schools keep getting lowered?  When will it stop?  Is there a bottom to how low you will go, or do we just have to wait until all the schools fail?  The race to the bottom is an ugly, ugly thing.
What's next? You want parents to sit back, let our schools fail so that your friends at the AFC and other privateers (who have been so aggressively trying to buy our elections) can jump in and "save" them, creating for-profit ventures out of once-excellent schools.  And then what? What do we do with all of these underserved students?  Let them "pull themselves up by their bootstraps?" Let them "invest" borrowed money in vocational programs that may or may not lead them to living-wage jobs? Let the prisons do the rest?

Dr. Ever's Fair Funding for Our Future plan
It doesn't have to happen.  You have claimed you want to work together and are constantly pretending that you work closely with Dr. Evers - if so, I advise that you take seriously his Fair Funding for Our Future plan, which addresses the very real harm done by simply gouging funds from out schools and restores funding to a level that ensures our kids can get the education they need to thrive in the workplace and as smart, well-rounded, well-trained members of society, ready to do their share to move Wisconsin forward.  This program, - as education experts like Thomas Mertz have made clear -in conjunction with something that will specifically ensure funds to our poorest schools (like "A Penny for Kids," a proposal that raises the sales tax by one cent which would raise $850 million a year for schools and reduce the need to increase property taxes), would prepare our kids for a chance at real success. Your plan prepares them to live off the state forever. 

I have been following the blow-by-blow cuts to education ever since you took office. I have also been listening carefully to what people on both sides are saying about what does and doesn't work.  The facts could not be more clear: your plan pushes forward a catastrophic, fundamentally misguided attack on public education that has very little to do with "unions" or "workers rights" and everything to do with an ultimate goal of reducing accountability and opening the door to privatization.  I oppose that, and not on a partisan basis (don't even get me started on what I oppose in the Obama plan). I oppose it because it's bad for our kids. It's bad for my kids.  It's bad for all of us.

Please. On just this one thing: give a little.  During the recall, the one point on which both sides agreed (that is, both people who voted for you and against you) is that your cuts to public education were beyond the pale and a direct assault on the Wisconsin Idea and our bipartisan history of progressive excellence in education.  You can go on pretending your unique combination of no business experience and no education qualifies you to be an authority on everything else - we don't like it, but we're used to it. But when it comes to our kids, and our schools, do the right thing. Open your mind to what people who don't have a financial stake in this matter are saying and listen. Let us reinvest our money in our kids. We shouldn't have to beg.  But I'll beg now so my kids won't have to do it later.

On Tuesday, I'll be sending my kids off to school.  The little one is starting kindergarten (full-day, so I can finally afford to get back to work and try to crawl out of the hole your helpful cuts to my benefits and pay have left us in).  Off they'll go: with a kiss and a hug and a few tears (and that reminds me, I think I'm supposed to organize the Boo Hoo Breakfast! Better get on that!)...and a lot of worry.  Worry about what this year will bring for them personally, what the new budget will do to their school now that we don't have the "cushion" afforded last year by all the teachers forced into early retirement.  But also hope:  because they are so smart, and so ready, and so resilient, and their teachers are so wonderful, and the staff and administrators at the school so supportive, and our school board has their best interests clearly in focus. Dollars can't change any of that.  But our district is lucky. Others are not.  And those are the kids I'm worried about most.

So it'll be bittersweet: seeing them go off into that world where I can only protect them from a distance, with solid home-training, loving guidance and support, and by advocating for them as a parent-citizen at every level I can (on the PTO, at the school board, through our elected officials).  I'm doing my best.  I ask you to do the same.  

"Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, 
because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, 
can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation." 
- John F. Kennedy

If you're really as laser-focused on jobs as you say you are, remember what really matters: without a truly educated (not just "trained") workforce, there are no jobs. There is no middle class. There is no American Dream.  There is no hope.

Reinvest in our schools.  Make sure our money is going where we want it to go: toward making our schools even better than they were before your cuts started to unravel them.  Raise the bar.  Make sure our teachers are the best by making sure we hire people who know that being an expert doesn't make you a good teacher, and who have the humility to know that the training that leads to the classroom is, if anything, too low a price to pay for the huge responsibility of educating all of our children.  Put education first. Make it your priority. And not just with lip-service to your own kids and pithy examples of all the teachers who allegedly thank you for the helpful cuts to their own schools. Put education first by listening to what the education experts, educators, administrators, Dr. Evers, and concerned citizens on both sides of the fence have been telling you: the cuts are too deep.  It's not working.  

Humility is the most admirable trait a leader can possess. Show some now.
Reinvest in our schools before it's too late.

Heather DuBois Bourenane
Sun Prairie


Callen Harty on the Freedom to Dissent

Open Letter to Wisconsin Capitol Police Chief Erwin

by Callen Harty

Capitol police officer watching the Solidarity Sing Along beneath a large banner reading, “Big Brother is Watching You”.  Photo by Callen Harty.

August 27, 2012

Dear Chief Erwin,

I haven’t met you yet, though I anticipate that some day I will.  I read about you today and feel as if I know you already.  In an interview with the Associated Press you said that as the new Wisconsin Capitol Police Chief you intend to crack down on protests at the Capitol.  Scott Walker will appreciate you doing this, as he certainly doesn’t want to hear what the citizens of his state may have to say about his policies or governance.  He would just as soon we all go away so that he can focus on taking phone calls from only the wealthiest of his constituents (and of course, several out-of-state donors who are not constituents but still expect payback for their generosity toward his most recent campaign).

Like him you apparently have no respect for the history of the Capitol building that you are sworn to protect.  You may not know this, but it has always been a place for citizens to congregate, a place to raise voices against the worst of legislative assaults on our rights, freedom, and way of life.  There is a rich history of protest and citizen involvement in the Capitol, and particularly the rotunda, a place as close to a statewide town hall as can be found anywhere.  It seems that you are determined to overturn that history and make the Capitol and its denizens available only to those who can afford to pay for the privilege.  It is our house and we will not be evicted.

It is understandable to get tough on criminals who are violent or who damage the building in some way.  It is not understandable to try to prevent legitimate protest in a democracy.

The sad truth is that those who silently acquiesce now to you shutting off the ability to protest under the dome will one day have protests of their own silenced, and they don’t understand that connection.  This is not about the specific protests of the last year and a half–it is about any protest that may be silenced in the future, from either the left or the right.  Those of us who appreciate the Bill of Rights wish those rights extended even to our enemies.  Diminishing rights in any way is a chilling endeavor, especially from a former Marine who undoubtedly swore at one time to fight to preserve the rights of fellow Americans.  Putting roadblocks in the way of citizens assembling, petitioning their government, and raising their voices to be heard over the din created by the exchange of pieces of silver and gold and the rustling of dollar bills is an affront to the citizens of the state and the sometimes messy thing known as democracy.

If the legislators working in the Capitol would like the protesters silenced then perhaps they should govern in a way that is consistent with the historically open and honest government that Wisconsin prided itself upon for years. They would not need police to quell peaceful protests if there were no need for protest.

People understand that both the federal and state governments have chipped away at the rights inherent in protesting in a number of ways over the last several years.   They have created permitting systems, free speech zones (where one can say anything to others of like mind but can’t be seen or heard by anyone who needs to hear the words), confiscated cameras and video recorders, intimidated protesters, and more.  But that doesn’t mean that we won’t fight the continued erosion of our Constitutionally guaranteed rights.  In fact, it means that we will fight all the harder.

Nobody is surprised by this impending crackdown.  While Chief Tubbs wasn’t perfect he did strive to strike a balance between the functioning of government and the rights of that government’s citizens to protest.  He understood the need to protect the building and those who work there while also protecting the Constitutional rights of those who came to express their dissatisfaction with those working there.  When Tubbs left to take another job everyone knew that Governor Walker would select someone in his stead who would be more beholden to the Governor and the Department of Administration than to the citizens of the state that all of those in government–legislators, bureaucrats, and the police–are meant to serve.  The only question was who would be the administration’s lap dog, how draconian would that person be, and how soon would the hammer come down. Now we have the answers–you, very, and now.

Please understand that we are not afraid of you.  Nobody wants to go to jail or face fines, particularly for something as innocent as gathering to make our voices heard.  I would rather have my hands in chains than my mind enslaved.  It is better to be a convict in any jail than to be a prisoner of your own conscience.  We will not be silenced, particularly when the issue is free speech, the right to peaceably assemble, or the right to petition our government for the redress of grievances.  Your brute force will not stifle our creativity and your tenure will not outlive our passion.  Perhaps the former chief didn’t tell you that every time they cracked down on legal and peaceful protests our numbers swelled with sympathizers.  Perhaps he didn’t tell you that for every police action there is an opposite and greater citizen reaction.  If not, you will learn soon enough.


Callen Harty, citizen
Monona, Wisconsin

After the Recall: thinking globally, acting locally

Dear friends of MoD,

Since June 5th, I've been neglecting the blog - and the perpetually fundraising governor - to attend to other things, like catching up on other work and making jam and taking a vacation and generally licking the wounds inflicted by having tried my hardest, and lost.  

Except that we didn't lose, exactly.  Where I stand, as a matter of fact, we won. And big. Walker lost in Sun Prairie by 6 percentage points MORE than he lost here in 2010 - and with 2000 new voter registrations and 84% voter turnout.  Locally, we got the heck out of the vote.  And we got people engaged. And it worked.

My first published article is a cover story! Art by Matt Mignanelli
So it's not like I've just been moping around these last two months; it only took about a week to come to terms with the embarrassing fact that Scott Walker is still our governor. I've just been too busy to write to that guy. I've been busy working and thinking, and meeting with my friends at SPARC - our local grassroots action team - to plan what's next for keeping people involved, engaged and informed.  To this end, I spent a ton of time working on this article - my first real published piece, and it made the cover of this week's Isthmus! woot! feeling pretty giddy about that! - on local politics, which I hope will spark some real dialogue and get people talking about how they might get more involved - and maybe even run for office.

Writing this article was a challenge, and a real learning experience. I interviewed all kinds of people to write this piece: the current mayor, the old mayor, the city clerk, other elected officials and party people, other grassroots activists...and let me tell you, this article is the tip of the iceberg here in Sun Prairie: there was a ton of information I didn't include either because sources didn't want to go on record for fear of retaliation or because the things they shared weren't so much "news" as they were "incredibly unpleasant and/or accusatory reflections" on the character of some of our local officials.  And I'm not out to slander anyone: I just want people who aren't paying attention to start doing so, and people who are being paid to represent the people who elected them to do so with integrity, and an honest respect for the fact that the majority of people in our city share the progressive values that make our community a great place to live.  And specifically I would like The Star to stop pretending the minority opinion is the prevailing perspective in Sun Prairie, because it's not.  And the events of the last year are not new proof of it: Sun Prairie always votes blue for state and national elections, as far back as I looked. And when given a clear choice, we almost always choose the progressive candidate over the conservative one.  The problem is that we often don't get to choose: people run unopposed all the time.  No one wants to run for office. I'm hoping that will change.

And not just in Sun Prairie, where we had two great grassroots candidates - Nick Zweifel and Tiffany Keogh - step up this year, but all over the state. All  over the country.  Getting people who care more about local issues than party politics to run local government is the first best step to taking politics back from the special interests who have it in the death-grip that has made possible such unthinkable horrors as the possibility of a RMONEY/RAYN ticket.

So that's where I am now. And that's where we all are: in our own backyards, in our own hometowns, trying to make sense of how we can best make our worlds just a little bit better while we stave off those who would throw granny under the bus while they tie the dog to the top of it and hurdle down the highway to stop on our very own Main Street and try to kiss my babies.  And no thanks to that. They can keep their mitts away from my babies (and their schools), at the minimum.  But the more good people we have in City Hall standing up for what all of us want - and not just what their party wants, or what their sponsors want - the easier it will be to keep our babies out of their clutches and keep our grannies away from the bus and keep our towns the way we like them: friendly, open, honest, and blue.

Hope you like the article. Let me know what you think.